Ah, April in Spain. First swim in the sea, soaking up the sunshine… life’s good. Here is a celebratory photo shoot of industrious Andalusian bees on the Atlantic coast.


Solitude is cool, loneliness is not

You don’t know what you have until it’s gone. Then you miss it. But you can also learn something along the way.

This year is the first that I am living alone, in a tiny studio flat in London. I’m trying to decide whether I like it. On balance, I think not. Having my own space is fantastic – I value seclusion more than most – but only when the seclusion can be suspended on demand. If you’ve ever had to move alone to a new city, you will know that social interactions with people whom you’ve only recently met don’t work like this. I do appreciate the peace especially after a long day at uni, but those only come twice a week, now. As usual, I want to have my cake and eat it.

At home, growing up, I could wander around the house to see what my parents and brother were up to, and school provided at least a minimum of social interaction with non-family members. As an undergrad, I lived in college for two years and in student housing with friends for another. This really was the best of both worlds: my room was my own, but I could count on having friends around at meal times and we would schedule social study breaks. I never hung out with the people on my course, but housemates and university societies kept me more than socially active.

Now, I sometimes go a whole day without speaking to anyone face-to-face. Don’t feel too sorry for me – I’m in a fantastic relationship and my life is pretty great – I’m just pointing this out as an annoying realisation of the cost of privacy. Small spells of isolation are not the end of the world, but over time, they can be pretty draining. I have discovered, through experience, why Sims have a ‘social’ meter on their needs tab. (A feature that mystified me as a child – especially the way it would completely replenish by the magic of WooHoo.)

Sims needs

It’s actually rather profound stuff. We need other people. We’re just not built to be alone for too long. So, even if I have plenty of work that can be done from home, I try not to let a day go by when I don’t leave my flat at some point. When social interactions can’t be arranged, there are a few alternatives. Skype is God’s gift to millennials, but I find that I don’t make the time for it as often as I could. More often, it’s exercise that I turn to. A brisk run is like an orgasm for the endocrine system. Some days, brief conversations with strangers (say, in the supermarket) become valuable interactions! Try not to judge me, I promise this is not as sad as it sounds.

The truth is, I am often too busy to justify the vast investments of time required for short socials in London (this place is bloody huge), so I only set aside the hours when I think it will be worth it. I know, I’m the worst. My horribly calculating brain has begun to treat social time as a transaction, only to be carried out after careful cost-benefit analysis. I also confess that, at this point in my life, meeting new people is an effort, time spent getting to know acquaintances, an investment.

The problem is compounded by my fondness of solitude, or perhaps of the industriousness that comes of it. And I realise that I am starting to sound like a grinchy hermit who chooses to ignore social gatherings by convincing himself that there are important tasks to complete alone. But I’m not too antisocial when my coursework pressure ebbs, I promise! I like going out as much as the next person, but at times there just really isn’t much going on that I can go to. Anwyay, next year I’m aiming for housemates. I’m picky about sharing living space with others – but, as I said, it’s measured on balance, innit?


A taste of Spring

I moved to the UK more than three years ago now. This is my first in London, after my time at uni in the Northeast. One of the things that I still miss most from home is the amount of daylight we get throughout the year. It’s not so much the British rain, or the cold, that bother me, but the almost constant gloom of Winter. Weeks on end of grey cloud cover, each day punctuated by a half-sensed sunset early in the afternoon…

My dad has always said that he couldn’t imagine living somewhere without seasons. I share his sentiment. Any change of season is a welcome change, but I especially welcome Autumn and Spring. Perhaps it is because they come with the most visible changes, and the most longed-for reliefs. In Spain, the cranes will be flying home northward, and the swallows settling in under our eaves from their long journey. The toads will be screaming their orgies outside the house at night, and the almond trees will have bloomed.

In London, I sense little of this, but there are other changes to appreciate. Daffodils line the footpaths and bees are starting to buzz. The biggest change of all is in the people. With the balmy weather and pleasant evening light, Londoners take to the park, and the atmosphere is of quiet and contented celebration. This week, I joined them to enjoy this taste of Spring.

Playing Chinese whispers with science headlines

A couple of months ago I started working as an intern with the communications team of Imperial College London. I write articles for the news site on research carried out by Imperial scientists. Naturally this involves simplifying technical detail for a lay audience. At Imperial I am surrounded by people who spend a great deal of time discussing science communication. We think long and hard about how best to make science accessible and entertaining without compromising accuracy. We also spend a fair bit of time worrying over what counts as ‘accurate’ and ranting about how most journalists don’t share science communicators’ qualms. Still, one wishfully thinks that their professional training and values must count for something. One is wrong. One was recently shocked by just how mercenary science journalism can be.

My first article covered experiments on the use of large structures, inspired by metamaterials, to protect buildings from earthquakes. Imperial is well-known for its metamaterial research because of Sir John Pendry, the father of ‘invisibility cloaks’. That term is not a media gimmick. Physicists themselves write of invisibility cloaks in their research papers, nodding to Harry Potter in an unprecedented display of PR savviness. Continue reading “Playing Chinese whispers with science headlines”

Oh, Statistics… what have you done?

I just caught myself checking the distribution of scores and number of reviews given to a book in Goodreads to determine whether I could rely on the average rating as a useful indicator of central tendency.

A year ago I would have looked at the red stars and read the blurb.

University will be the end of me.

Are Science and Religion compatible?

The Durham Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (DASH) hosted an event this evening with guest speaker Prof Chris Done entitled “Are Science and Religion compatible?”, and I came back with so many thoughts I had to write them down.

First, let me give you a bit of context. Prof Chris Done is both a professor of Astrophysics at Durham University and one of the leaders of Emmanuel Church Durham, which describes itself as a “charismatic, family church”. The focus of her talk was to explain how, as a “gabby, seventeen year-old atheist”, she became a Christian only when presented with “evidence” of Jesus Christ’s divine identity. For her, Jesus —specifically, Jesus accepted as the son and embodiment of God— is the only way us humans can know that God exists. God is above anything we can understand, so He reveals Himself to us through Jesus, who shares our human nature while retaining the identity of God.

Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? (John 14:9)

She therefore presents herself as living proof that science and religion are, indeed, compatible.

As an atheist scientist, I don’t actually have a problem with her position. That is, I do believe that science and religion can be compatible — just not in the way she proposes. Hear me out. Continue reading “Are Science and Religion compatible?”

A day in the life: on running and revision

Today I spent six hours in the Library cramming shamelessly. It’s that time of year when you have to get there early and stake out a spot or face walking aimlessly through the aisles all morning waiting for someone to leave, like trying to park your car in the centre of London. Students like to camp out in the Library: they leave their shit sprawled across several tables while they go out for lunch to lull themselves into false sense of responsibility. But hey, we’re all in this together: it’s revision time!

At least they call it revision. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t qualify if you never had the vision in the first place. And I swear I learnt stuff this morning. Stuff I’d never known before. So I’m going to stick with “studying”.

This evening, after an unhealthily productive day, I decided I’d go out, breathe the air and celebrate I was alive. So I donned my running shoes and headed south. There are three good reasons why I chose south. First of all, south of Durham is the road to Darlington. Parallel to it runs a pavement from which you can take several footpaths, all spilling into the neighbouring fields. The fields lie on a gentle hill, basking in the spring sunsets and brimming with dandelions. You see the appeal. Secondly, south is home. This might sound stupid, but I come from Spain, and I promise I can feel it in my bones that I am getting closer to Spain when I’m on that road to Darlington. Last of all, running south is usually a good idea when in doubt. You may recall Treebeard saying: “I always like going south; somehow, it feels like going downhill.” Continue reading “A day in the life: on running and revision”